A storied composer and performer whose multiple entities bespeak a fertile and fevered creative mind, JG Thirlwell has spawned a never-ending spree of projects since he first began making music as an expatriated Australian teenager in London in the 1970s. For much of his career, Thirlwell has been known as Foetus. As in: Scraping Foetus Off the Wheel, You’ve Got Foetus on Your Breath, The Foetus All-Nude Revue, among other variations, whose combined personas released 19 albums (each with a cheerful four-letter title, like Hole,Gash and Boil) between 1981 and 2013. This sonically omnivorous body of work crawled through the gutters and reached for the stars of everything that fascinated the musician: bleak themes shot through with a brutal humor, sound erupting with raw enthusiasm for you-name-it, from the filthiest noise to the most refined European avant-garde.
But Thirlwell also manifested behind such concepts as Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus, and Manorexia, while collaborating with and/or producing an encyclopedic array of fellow artists and iconoclasts, from Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave, and Nurse With Wound early on to later endeavors with Nine Inch Nails, Zola Jesus, and Pantera (among so many others). In the new millennium, he began writing for contemporary music ensembles like Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can, and became the soundtrack composer for the cult-fave animated shows Archer (FX) and The Venture Bros. (Cartoon Network).
That’s a ruthlessly abbreviated backdrop to point towards the composer’s latest iteration, which he unveils on Feb. 28 and March 1 at National Sawdust. JG Thirlwell and Ensemble features harp, viola, piano, acoustic guitar, and voice, as the composer continues his work with Simon Hanes of Tredici Bacci, a 14-piece ensemble that makes palpable its leader’s devotion to Italian cinematic scores, among other fixations, and has backed Thirlwell’s previous investigations of his back catalog, to lusty, gimlet-eyed effect. Hearing the performer enact the role of purgatorial nightclub singer fronting a postmodern big band, as one can do in a video from a 2018 show at the Stone (posted on YouTube), suggests both the impressive flexibility of his songs and the mischievous spark necessary to entertain with themes from a pulp nightmare. Although, as Thirlwell notes, “ A lot of that was a result of me not knowing what the hell I was doing. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, but it’s not like I came out of that background. It’s really wanting to make music that sounds like it’s gone through a filter of all sorts of things, and then it’s coming out [through] someone who doesn’t quite know how to do it, which gives it a unique quality.”
The new ensemble, which will perform fresh arrangements of such Foetus standards as “Throne of Agony” and “I’ll Meet You in Poland Baby” and Wiseblood’s “Someone Drowned in My Pool” as well as more recent material, arose from a brief set Thirlwell put together a year ago for the Kitchen’s spring benefit gala. “Once I had done it, I decided to expand it into a full set,” he explains. “It’s interesting to re-voice those songs, and reevaluate those older songs which I never play. I don’t sing very much. I stopped doing Foetus live in 2001. So it’s been a while since I’ve revisited any type of that material.”
Staging his work in a rock-band format, as he did in Foetus, “dumbed down the material a lot of the time,” Thirlwell says. “After awhile, I thought this doesn’t do the material justice. I was kind of over that.” A year or two after he’d retired Foetus as a live act, a UCLA commission to do Steroid Maximus gave the composer the opportunity to work with arranger Steven Bernstein and an 18-piece ensemble, suggesting new approaches drawn from the ever-resonating world of film-noir soundtracks and big band brio. “That made me feel OK.”
Conversing on a recent afternoon from his loft in DUMBO, where he’s lived for 31 years, Thirlwell laughs when he corrects a mistaken impression of the current project. “Someone the other day said, ‘I heard you’re doing lounge versions.’ Yeah, they’re not lounge versions. They are chamber versions. It’s a chance to either enhance what was there musically, or to thicken it out with instruments that have less stain. It’s richer melodically, what’s going on with these arrangements.”
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: You’ve been quite prolific. Is it fair to call you a workaholic, or is it more a function of focus and habit?
JG THIRLWELL: I don’t know if I consider myself a workaholic—I think that word is bandied about a lot. I do work all the time, in a kind of perpetual-motion way. I have plenty of space for other things in my life, but they all tend to revolve around music and culture as well. So everything comes back to the same pot. I work every day, and I’m pretty good at time management and project management. I have many projects on the boil in different states of completion, and I switch from one to another constantly. Right now, I’m working on eight albums. They’re all in various states. Some of them are almost finished, but they need finishing funding. Some of them, they just sort of seem to crop up all the time. I know how to nibble on projects and get them finished.
How are you set up? What sort of process?
I have a studio in my loft, and it depends on what I’m working on that day. I do music for two cartoons, Archer and The Venture Bros., and both of those take up quite a lot of time. At the moment, I’m in the middle of the new season of Archer. Last year really kicked my ass, because I was in production with both shows at the same time. Usually they’re staggered. Usually I have time in between episodes of Archer when I can do my own material as well, or I can spread it out where I do an episode over a month, and in between that I can be working with Simon—or, today, I’m working on another project with a different Simon: Simon Steensland, a Swedish composer whose work I’ve followed for a while.
Last year, or the year before, I was in Stockholm working on a commission with The Great Learning Orchestra. They’re an ensemble inspired by Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra, where the members are at various levels of proficiency. Some of them read music; some of them don’t. Some of them just want to make a sound. I’d workshopped with them before. I’d written a couple of graphic scores for them. And they asked me to write a long-form piece, so I did a large piece that had about 12 sections, and incorporated a conventional score, an instructional score, and led improvisation.
Simon Steensland was in that iteration of the Great Learning Orchestra and I knew his work, so got to know him a little bit. He really liked one of the pieces I wrote, and did a cover of it and he sent it to me. And he said, “Well, I don’t know what to do with it.” And I said, “It would be a shame to just put it up on YouTube or something. Why don’t we collaborate on an album?” So all of a sudden now we’re embroiled in making an album, and both of us are pretty busy, so we go back and forth on that.
So today I’ve carved out a little time to work on that, and then on Monday I’m going to work a bit on the Xordox album, and then soon there’ll be another Archer episode coming in, and later in the month there’ll be the rehearsals for the ensemble show. But then the last two weeks I’ve been working on a commission for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, as well. So that will premiere in April at Roulette.
I jump around a lot. I know a lot about my approaches. I’m able to look at myself in a certain way and know if I’ve gone as far as I can on a certain project, and that might be the time to stop it and leave it for a couple of days, and when I come back to it I know what the solution is. Sometimes I’ll start on something late at night and not think about it too much, and when I wake up in the morning I know exactly what to do. Somehow it’s crystalized during my sleep.
It’s interesting to me how what once was considered underground – everything that was going on in the East Village and elsewhere in the 1980s – eventually crosses over into wider cultural acknowledgement, or reach, from playing holes-in-the-wall to concert halls. When did this start happening for you, drawing the commissions and so on?
For me, one of the first things that I maybe consider a commission is when I was asked by Creative Time to do a performance at the Anchorage. That was in ‘96 or something. That was showing the cracks of my dissatisfaction of working in a band format. I wrote a piece that had a score. There were no rehearsals, but there were written instructions. I had clocks, so it was a time-based score with instructions and maybe eight or nine musicians, and I also had Lydia Lunch on that, too. I guided and conducted the thing. So that was maybe one of first things where I stepped out and tried to do something. Slowly things moved from there. And then there was the Steroid thing and soon after that I did some pieces for Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can and then it’s been several pieces since then, so it’s evolved from that.
How has the scoring work changed your life and work? Does it feel subversive to have MTV as a platform?
It feels a little weird that I make this music in my studio and then it goes out there in front of millions of people. When it came about, that was the result of the director of The Venture Bros., Jackson Publick, hearing Steroid Maximus and when he heard it he felt it perfectly encapsulated the musical universe that the Venture Brothers lived in. [For the pilot] they ended up licensing Steroid Maximus stuff and I wrote a couple of pieces for that. Then it got picked up by Cartoon Network/Adult Swim. I had to challenge my rigidity, knowing it would take a lot of time. It was really difficult at first, but the Malcolm Gladwell theory of the 10,000 hours kicked in and it got easier and I got better at it.
Yeah, it has changed my approach to making music, in the same way that commissions have. I used to make music looking at a blank canvas, so to speak. Scoring gives you certain parameters to work within. Venture Brothers I have created the musical universe and the musical vocabulary of the show in tandem with the director. You end up doing whatever elevates the show. I’m not going to use it necessarily as the platform to experiment in. I know there are things that I need to do to propel the show, and there’s emotions that I need to echo or comment on, or action I need to comment in; it’s scored tightly to picture.
I liken it to problem-solving. I might have a cue that says 1 minute and 46 seconds long, and I know that it has to start at a certain level of intensity and build up to this other intensity, and I might have to drop away to let a bit of dialogue come through and then there’s a pause, like a beat before the next thing happens, you let the gag drop, and then it gets more intense and you change tempo and then it has to end on a certain beat as well. So once that’s mapped out, then I decide what the tempos are and what key it’s in and then go.
So you already have that structure, and then there’s a million things to do within that. What instrumentation is it going to be? How noisy is it going to get? What’s going on with sound design? Once I’m done, I send it off and let them mix it and I move onto the next thing. That problem-solving approach has been really helpful in the rest of my music, as well. I’ve always set parameters for myself. I compose stuff in my head and I’ll be mulling on it a long time. But then it’s a laborious process of getting out what I hear in my head onto tape or a hard drive.
Getting back to the shows, tell me about your relationship with Simon Hanes.
I met him a few years ago at Issue Project Room. It was at a William Basinski show. He came up to me and said he liked my work on The Venture Bros. I listened to his work and was really impressed, and said come on over. The first thing we did together was, I wanted to do a transcription of this operatic piece I’d written, that I’d had on the album Hide (2010). At that time I had an ally at the English National Opera. I’d been developing this opera for a few years. So I wanted to transcribe that for a 67-piece orchestra and a 40-piece choir. So that was the first time we worked together.
He’s a really great musician. He’s a graduate of New England Conservatory. I met him pretty much when he graduated, so he’s a lot younger than me. We have a really common, shared music appreciation for things. He’s very obsessed with Italian cinema, Italian soundtracks, and I’m pretty well-versed in that. We both love Burt Bacharach. But we’re also both into music that pushes the envelope, and the more sonically challenging spectrum of 20th century classical music and contemporary classical music and improv, and noise, and everything in between. So we get on very well. He has a great sense of humor and is easy to be around, so it’s a pleasure to work together. We work together quite quickly, too.
JG Thirlwell and Ensemble perform at National Sawdust on Feb. 28 at 7:30pm and March 1 at 10:30pm; nationalsawdust.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.